By John Shinn
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — The toughest five-game stretch of Oklahoma’s season ends today. The run that began with the Big 12 Conference opener at Texas Jan. 4 and then featured four ranked teams in succession, halts after the 25th-ranked Sooners meet No. 12 Baylor at 1 p.m. today at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.
It was a tough two weeks in which OU (13-4, 2-2 Big 12) positioned itself as an NCAA tournament team — for now — and put itself in a four-way tie for fourth place in the league.
If it can get through the gauntlet with three wins, the wind behind OU’s sails increases considerably.
Players and coaches avoid grouping games or stretches together in terms of importance. One game at a time is the mantra.
But since the stretch ends against Baylor, Kruger was willing to entertain the notion.
“If you look back at the beginning of the season and see three games on the road and two at home and you can come through it with three wins, then that would be really big,” he said. “You typically have two or three of those stretches over the course of a year.”
This one, however, was glaring because — with the exception of No. 9 Oklahoma State — OU was facing all the league’s heavyweights in succession.
It was the kind of stretch that could’ve put OU in a major hole. The wins over the Longhorns and last Saturday’s win over No. 8 Iowa State meant that won’t be the case.
A win today, however, means the Sooners would remain over .500 in the league, collect another win over a Top 25 team and stay in the top half of the Big 12 standings.
The gauntlet they would’ve run would serve as a springboard instead of a roof caving in on them.
There’s also the matter of how important the two meetings between the Sooners and 12th-ranked Bears (13-3, 1-2) turned out to be last season.
A strong argument can be made the Sooners’ season sweep of the Bears was what secured the NCAA tournament berth. OU finished two games ahead in the conference standings and tied for fourth place. The Bears were alone in sixth and were left out of the NCAA tournament field because of it.
“It seemed like everybody really played against them last year, and it also seemed like we outfought them a little bit,” sophomore guard Je’lon Hornbeak recalled. “We came into those games with a chip on our shoulder and wanted it more. We have to keep that mentality.”
The Bears are in a much stronger postseason position heading into today. However, home losses weaken that stature considerably. The need to protect its home court is essential. They also became a desperate team after Wednesday’s loss at Texas Tech. Baylor, which might have been the Big 12’s most impressive team in the non-conference schedule, cannot afford to fall two games under .500 in the league. Momentum is fleeting. Once it’s lost, there’s no guarantee it’s coming back.
The Sooners, who are coming off Tuesday’s 77-66 loss at Kansas State, want to get some back.
Cameron Clark, who was held to a season low two points against the Wildcats, needs to regain momentum, too.
“We just have to bounce back against Baylor and get this win,” he said.
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